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So for our campaign, we're trying something different just to see how it works out. We have a party of several standard D&D characters, and also, a king character.

The king character is intentionally weaker than the rest: to the tune of 5 levels or so, with the rest of the party at level 8. The trick is, his power is in influence and money. He can command armies and make whatever decision he wishes. In this case, the king is an action king that does a bit of adventuring. However, since he has so much power, it wouldn't be beyond the pale for him to decide to take 100+ men from his honor guard with him. What would be the best way to mitigate the advantage that these soldiers would give him in a combat? Having an army vs army situation is one thing, but what about smaller fights where you might have say, 5 - 10 bandits to deal with? The soldiers will quite handily mop the floor with them.

I've already thought of larger monster fights where they're scenery basically, and the PCs do all the work, as well as the cost that toting these men around would add more weight to the already strained treasury.

Clarification: The party members are advisor level, and hold high offices in the kingdom, and are not just adventurers.

I want him to be able to take his retainers with him, but prevent every encounter from turning into "I send my 100 retainers, the bandits die" essentially.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Isn't it the "ideas generation" question type? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Nov 9 '17 at 16:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure if it is a duplicate but the answers to Keeping Mass Battles interesting for players could shed some light here. \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Gorman Nov 9 '17 at 17:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is your question really about catering the adventure to work around the king character (e.g. preventing his guards from going with him, or keeping them otherwise busy during dungeons), or about balancing individual fights around having a large number of retainers? \$\endgroup\$ – inthemanual Nov 17 '17 at 17:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Meta on question closure/reopen here. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Nov 18 '17 at 1:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Q still need to be narrowed down, IMHO. What do you want to achieve, exactly? "I cant really send 4 thugs up against the party and 100 soldiers" - why do you have to send 4 thugs? Are you trying to adapt an existing (official) adventure? I want him to be able to take his retainers with him, but prevent every encounter from turning into "I send my 100 retainers, the bandits die" - why do you have to pose problems, which can solved by the retainers? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Nov 22 '17 at 9:32
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Disclaimer: a large amount of the information in this answer is second-hand or generalizing from groups that wound up having a similar structure as you propose although not entirely by design. Pinches of salt all around.

It's not going to be easy

So, you have one player character who is far weaker than the other characters in combat, but wields a compensating amount of money, influence and soldiers to compensate. I foresee issues. Let's begin with the issues faced by the player of the king.

Combat is a major part of most DnD campaigns, and also where the level difference between characters is most keenly felt. Being five levels behind is a serious drawback, even in the bounded accuracy world of DnD 5e - it's a whole tier difference. While many players can deal with their characters being less useful for a few rounds, a single encounter or a single session, being constantly worse than the others can and probably will make combat seem like a chore for the player of the king. There's also encounter balance to consider - if the combats are level-appropriate for the rest of the party, the king character can quite easily get snuffed by a few area-of-effect attacks not even aimed directly at him.

So, having little power in combat is a drawback, but it can be made up with non-combat stuff like having overflowing coffers, enough soldiers to get rid of mundane threats with ease and enough influence to open the doors to anywhere, right? The difficulty here is that this can potentially detract from the experience of the other party members.

Picture the situation: the party is about to enter a fortified town that's guarded by mercenaries who refuse to let them in. Without the king, the party would have several natural choices: try to sneak around, fight the mercenaries, try to buy them off, ambush a small group of them and steal their clothes for disguises... but with the king, all the sensible solutions revolve around him: using his personal guard to round up the mercenaries, drawing from his limitless coffers to bribe them or simply appealing to his royal mandate.

The core of the issue with such a character is that it's dividing the fun bits of the game between two sub-parties - a problem commonly faced by other "skill monkey" or "social rogue" types in DnD. You have combats that are punishingly hard for the king, and to compensate, non-combat that's dominated by the king, and therefore at every moment of the game there is someone who is not getting to really enjoy the strengths of their character. You may well see people being disappointed, for instance, when the king successfully avoids combat, or conversely see the king's player get disappointed when combat is the only option.

What can you do to make it better?

Avoid building long sections of the game that emphasize some characters over others. A single short scene where the king can pull strings to ensure something nice for the party is nice, but a long scene of court negotiations while the adventurers stand leaning against the wall drumming their fingers is not very nice. Try to focus on scenes where both the party's adventurous skills and the king's wealth and influence come in handy - don't let the king's status solve all problems.

Since combat is a large part of many games, and can last for hours depending on the size of the encounters, it's rather hard to work the king in with their weakened combat abilities. Here, I would recommend a trick I've seen used a few times to give players whose usual characters were absent a bit of combat agency: instead or in addition to the king going to combat, let the king's player send two or three soldiers (personal bodyguards, champions, whatever) into combat and control them. These soldiers should be relatively simple to keep their turns fast, and to not overshadow the regular PCs. The king's player can control the champions so they have more role in combat while keeping the king relatively vulnerable as was your original intent.

Finally, you can simply make the king as powerful in combat as everyone else - it wasn't uncommon for monarchs to be capable warriors as well, doubly so in the world of fantasy. In that case, you would need to bring in the asymmetry from somewhere else, eg. by having enemies recognize and prefer to target the king in combat.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea of having a few champions controlled by the king’s player. However, the poster seems to want about 100 soldiers following the king around (which is more realistic, but presents some serious roleplaying difficulties). \$\endgroup\$ – Obie 2.0 Nov 9 '17 at 19:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I think giving the king player control of his men in combat would definitely make it less tedious for him. The king player may decide to bring less, but I wanted to be prepared for if he decided to bring the majority of the palace guard with him, for example. \$\endgroup\$ – Raznarok Nov 9 '17 at 21:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Obie yeah, though by what I understood, that part was already under control (by having larger monsters that mundane soldiers can't work against) \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Nov 9 '17 at 22:21
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A king must answer to his people. If the king keeps venturing off with 100 of his best men, that leaves the kingdom virtually defenseless. A perfect opportunity for neighboring areas, or even the local thieves' guild, to attack en masse. Commoners will leave, which means less revenue and less sway the king will have.

Plus how many people are going to want to be a solider if it requires always walking through dungeons and being used as fodder.

"You, red shirt, walk into that temple and check for traps and curses."

And not every adventure can be "solved" by superior numbers. Sure they can can be used to keep the kobolds at bay, but what if there is a plague? More people using up more resources would actually hinder the efforts. What if the trail leads them into a mine where the tunnels can barely fit one-man-wide? Just yell "Rust monster!" and they will trample each other, and the adventurers, to escape.

And how many honor guard are going to be equipped with magic and/or magic items? All of them? That's an awful lot of magic floating around.

There are plenty of ways to strip an army of power.

In the campaign I'm in right now, one of the characters is the daughter of what would be the CEO of a major trading company. They are allowed to use clout and bargaining as part of role-play, but not everyone is influenced by their offers so other less diplomatic means come into play...

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not to mention intrigue, while the king is away, who runs the place and what seeds are they sowing? \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Nov 9 '17 at 18:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with that first part, but I see it as an big obstacle to this whole idea. How is the king going to have the time to go adventuring? For that matter, how will they not be more powerful than the other players, at least until pretty high levels? You have to get to a pretty high level before the sort of money a ruler has can’t buy more than enough magic, allies etc. to equalize things. \$\endgroup\$ – Obie 2.0 Nov 9 '17 at 19:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ But that said - a wealthy ruler could use teleportation to get to important situations quickly, if necessary. It would be a different style of adventuring, but it might enable the king to deal with major issues personally, while not leaving their court or country defenseless. \$\endgroup\$ – Obie 2.0 Nov 9 '17 at 19:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ While you are mixing up a democracy with a monarchy - A king must answer to his people - this is still a decent answer. It's just a weak opening statement, given the archetype that this setting and this question are built upon. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 21 '17 at 2:58
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The Honor Guard is just another limited resource.

D&D is as much about resource management as it is about tactical combat. Many classes have some kind of resource-intensive nova option that allow them to waltz through CR-appropriate encounters (e.g. paladin smites). However, blowing all your spell slots early means that you don't have them for later encounters.

You should approach your king's honor guard the same way, almost as if you're building a new class (because that's essentially what you're doing).

First, limit the number of soldiers he can have in a particular quest. For example, I recently gave a party of mine control over a hobgoblin army. They can drag their army wherever they want, but they have to worry about the large size and supply chains. If the PCs want to go somewhere where adventurers go, then they can only bring a few soldiers: the portal can only transport so many, or they can only fit so many soldiers in a cramped dungeon, or the main army needs to be ready against a potential threat. If the king wants to replenish his soldiers, he will have to go back to camp to collect more.

Then, limit the strength of the soldiers. For example, a guard (MM 347) is only CR 1/8, and even a knight (MM 347) is only CR3. Since the party is nominally level 8, a single soldier isn't going to be able to do much against the large encounters they face. Thus, if the king decides to hang back and send in his guard, he's inevitably going to lose some of his limited number of soldiers.

By turning the honor guard into a resource, you reduce it to managing class features, which is what D&D is already built around. The king can decide that he wants to blow his "nova" against a powerful monster, and "spend" a number of his soldiers, or he can try to hold back and save them for later.

Balance by playtesting or simulation

You'll have to figure out the balance by simply testing it. The monsters in the MM and the player classes were tuned by playtesting, and that's what you're going to have to do to find your acceptable balance. You can test out a few battles to determine how many soldiers you want to let your player have, and how strong they can be. And, like any other class, you'll have to take those into account when designing encounters.

Unfortunately, you've created a bookkeeping nightmare for yourself and your player, because you have to play with so many creatures on the table, but there's not really a way around that.

Take inspiration from Out of the Abyss

In Out of the Abyss, there is a chapter in which the players can pick up a significant entourage (126-131) and some advice on how to deal with them (143-145). It's a lot to reproduce here, but if you have access to OotA, it has some great advice on how to DM things like travel pace, marching order, scouting, and loyalty.

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You can run this kind of campaign just fine

Although this may require some ingenuity. Also, an official campaign probably won't help here, you'll need to write your own.

PHB describes exploration, social interaction and combat as "the three pillars of adventure".

Exploration of the game world isn't just movement, it implies many things, like research, interaction, problem solving. It is naturally the king himself wants to lead some of these activities. Sending 100 soldiers really might not help you to solve a problem. Of course, an advisor could help, but... "if you want something done right, do it yourself". Besides, the king have PC advisors.

Social interaction. This is actually the easiest part. There are plenty of examples in history when violence solved nothing. You have to negotiate, personally, you can't just "send 100 soldiers" and wait when the problem solves itself. Of course, the kingdom have its sages and wizards, but they can't make decisions instead of the king. The king and his advisors are in charge.

Combat. I guess this is the primary concern. Of course, when a town elder asks PCs to get rid of the goblins, and they just send 100 soldiers into the cave, that doesn't feel satisfactory. Don't give them this "challenge". But a good D&D game still needs combat. So you either can use these rules for massive 100x100 battles, or you can let the king fight himself, without an army. The whole question then can be narrowed to "why the king can be divided from his army". There are plenty of options actually:

  • Tournaments or trials. Your 100 soldiers can't participate instead of you, even if they are better in fighting.
  • Duels. Only you can fight a noble of the same level.
  • Personal example. Be a paragon of virtue for your people. "The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword".
  • Assassins. You can command an army, it is true. But this army can't follow you everywhere. There could be possible dangerous situations where you have to fight by yourself.
  • A matter of trust. Going for a diplomatic mission with an army won't go well. You still need to protect yourself though.
  • Quite the opposite, a betrayal. Outwit your rival by killing him personally right in the middle of negotiations in his secret room.
  • Natural phenomena. Only high nobles can pass the mysterious barrier. You can pass, but you can't take your army with you.
  • Magic. You and your advisors were teleported somewhere, right from the throne room. What happened? How to get back? How dangerous would it be? Only you (and your advisors) can figure it out.

And let the king be the same level as the rest of the party. Disbalanced parties don't work well in 5e.

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To see how a king (or high noble) surrounded by advisors (or lesser nobles) is a balanced is a troublesome task at best. Let's look at some, but not all the dynamics that could influence the adventures in play:

What makes a king?

Traditionally in antics and early medieval times there are several pillars that a king has to hold on to to stay king:

  • Lineage
  • godly investiture / divine right of kings
  • proof of power

Lineage is something that either is or isn't (and if it isn't, it will be corrected for history), the divine right of kings is given by clergy pretty much, stays the proof of power. This proof of power is not only what makes the king in the antics, it is what keeps him in power.

When a problem emerges his vassals can't handle on their own, the king is obligated to go and deal with it. This blows up the conflicts the king (or his troops) will have to face, but it drives him from crisis to crisis (aka: adventure to adventure).

Historical example: One of 4 possible Macedon kings manages to ally enough people to back his claim to the throne, then he levies troops from all of Greece and goes to march against Persia. And then march on. And on. Until he loses the back up of his troops and returns to Persepolis... and die of fever. All the time he was surrounded by his best buddies since childhood, all of them equally capable.

His personal levies and honor guard will be large though... He might have to be a frontline king by tradition and he has to prove he is better than any of his troops to cement his proof of power and divine investiture. Being 5 levels behind the group will make this very hard, he might actually need to be very close to the level of his Hetairoi (Companions), maybe even outshine them by half a level in this case though.

Who's actually in charge?

I know, we often like to think a King is the one and only thing that can trample over laws, dictate what is going on and in any way 'allmighty' and absolute as long as it is mundane power... but he isn't. A king just as much needs his regal council of ministers and advisors to stay informed about the stuff that matters as well as to outsource routine business.

In a feudal society, these advisors are somewhat lesser landed nobles than the king (which can still be high nobility), but also clergy and well known studied people (like mages and physicians) do flock to a court, as do of course courtiers, representatives from powerful groups and so on. Now, They take some of the tedious tasks away, but they also get their share of power this way. Think of the power of a king as a cake: To get somebody to do parts of your job, they want a slice of it. So the king has to carve out special privileges to these people he needs tp run the country...

Now: How many privileges like tax exemption or the right to approve of a king did he or his lineage before him hand out? The less absolute he is, the less the king matters but as a representative figure (see modern Scandinavia or Britain). If the king himself is not much more than the nominal head of state, him going off to an adventure might be not only ok with the council but also expected, to keep him busy and off the books.

How about the weak king's honor guard?

Of course he will have his honor guard of maybe a few hundred, but that is just one battalion while the kingdom itself could field a legion - he is no threat. And then there are of course provisions that keep him from taking too many of these vets with him: The only group that is allowed to guard the palace is the same honor guard he can count on to take out to adventure. So most of his personal troops are most often bound, but he can take a handful of his vets with him. In the field against banditry and highwaymen his 20-such soldiers are a force to be reckoned with, but against dragons they don't do a dent. But then again, how easily do bandits that have a charismatic leader flock to a common course (all the moneys for us)?

So: Scale up banditry a notch. Instead of 5-10 highwayman, it's an outright bandit encampment that has to be taken out, about 30 robbers with 5 leaders (as enemies for the core group).

The other players?

In this case of a weak monarch, the other players easily can be just the noble best buddies or advisors that likewise are merely figureheads to their branches. Cutting the King in levels a bit compared to his buddies/advisors might be explained by him being younger than them, but keep in mind he should be somewhat capable in comparison to them, not only be a utility character. 5 Levels strike me crippling, 1-2 levels might be within the bounds much easier.

The Court as playground

We just explored what might make a king powerful or cut the power of the king down to a lower level, but what if the physical power of the king doesn't matter at all? After all an absolute king is much more a statesman than a warrior. He handles intrigues, deals with foreign powers on a huge scale and... doesn't get to delve into dungeons. Sorry, intrigue play isn't the strength of D&D.

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